The ADA protects against workplace discrimination and offers guidelines on psychiatric disability, which may be eligible for mental health Social Security benefits.

Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental, emotional and psychiatric conditions. The type, extent, and severity of symptoms can widely vary from person to person. Mental health conditions do not always follow a predictable pattern and can present at any point during a person’s lifespan. When mental illness notably impacts a person’s ability to function on a daily basis in academic, occupational or social settings, the term “psychiatric disability” is used.

Mental illness is a disability when it disrupts performance and negatively influences a person’s day-to-day activities. The degree and extent that a person’s functioning is impaired is another important factor in defining mental health disability.

ADA and Psychiatric Disability

Mental health and employment discrimination often arise from stereotypes, myths, fear and a lack of knowledge. The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, was created to prevent discrimination in the workplace toward individuals with a psychiatric and other disability. ADA mental health laws protect individuals from discrimination and harassment while assuring privacy and practical accommodations in the workplace.

ADA mental health disabilities are defined as conditions that significantly restrict important life activities other than working. Employment is only analyzed when another life activity is determined to be limited or impacted by a mental health impairment. Specific traits and behaviors are not classified as impairments by themselves but can be linked or associated with a larger mental health impairment.

ADA mental disability guidelines differentiate between impairments and disabilities, as an impairment only becomes a disability when a person becomes noticeably limited in their ability to carry out one or more of their life activities. The ADA does not specify what life activities need to be impaired, as life activities are not standardized and can vary considerably from person to person.

An impairment becomes classified as a disability based on the severity and length of time that a life activity is impacted. Impairments must be long-term, or the potential to become long-term, in order to be defined as a disability.

Disclosing a Mental Illness

Mental health rights under the ADA make some assurances for privacy in the workplace setting. A person does not have to disclose a mental illness to their employer in the majority of situations. If an employee does disclose a mental health condition, the employer is not allowed to discriminate against the person and needs to maintain confidentiality within the organization.

There are a few instances where an employer can make medical inquiries, including:

  • If a person has requested an accommodation
  • After a job offer and before employment begins if it is a standardized question to all employees working in the same position
  • In an affirmative action survey
  • On the job when there is a safety concern or when there is solid evidence that job performance is being negatively impacted

Social Security Disability and Mental Health Conditions

The Social Security Administration acknowledges a broad array of mental disorders as having a probability of causing disability on a long-term basis. Any mental disorder that prevents a person from performing their job duties can be considered for Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Social security disability for mental health conditions can only be obtained if a person qualifies based on several basic criteria. A mental health condition must be diagnosed by a physician and prevent a person from completing job requirements that have been met previously. The mental illness must prevent a person from being practically trained for other available work and must be projected to be long term, lasting for at least one year.

SSI psychiatric disability is heavily focused on a person’s overall capacity to perform their job requirements as opposed to them having certain symptoms or specific diagnoses. Social security for mental illness is evaluated similarly to that of physical impairments as it pertains to a person’s functional capacity for employment in light of their limitations.

Blue Book of Mental Impairments

Qualifying mental disorders for disability are outlined in a disability handbook knowns as the Blue Book of mental impairments. The Social Security Blue Book provides information regarding what mental disorders qualify for social security disability. The Blue Book of disability and mental disorders outlines conditions from a listing of impairments under a mental disorder subheading. There are nine categories of mental disorders outlined in the Blue Book, although other mental health conditions that are not listed may also qualify for benefits.

The 9 categories of mental disorders in the Blue Book includes:

How to Apply for Disability Benefits With a Mental Illness

A person interested in learning how to get mental health disability can start by contacting the Social Security Administration to obtain information and to inform of their intent to initiate a claim. The Administration will then set up an interview to meet and collect pertinent documentation. Collected information will be reviewed before rendering a decision regarding the claim. If an initial claim is not accepted, the claim can either be dropped or an appeal process can be initiated.

Psychiatric disability benefits are assessed and evaluated based on a set of criteria specific to each disorder. Mental health disability benefits can only be obtained when the criteria are met, or when the sum total of several disabling conditions is equal to the criteria that prevent engagement in functional activities. An individual needs to be able to show that they are in receipt of and compliant with all recommended treatment options. Medical documentation is necessary to provide valid evidence of a psychiatric disability.

Understanding how mental health conditions are classified by the Social Security Administration can help you or a loved one make informed decisions on treatment, work and more.

Renee Deveney
Editor – Renee Deveney
As a contributor for Advanced Recovery Systems, Renee Deveney is passionate about helping people struggling with substance use disorder. With a family history of addiction, Renee is committed to opening up a proactive dialogue about substance use and mental health. Read more
Tracy Smith
Medically Reviewed By – Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS
Tracy Smith is a Licensed Professional Counselor, a Nationally Certified Counselor, an Approved Clinical Supervisor, and a mental health freelance and ghostwriter. Read more

ADA National Network. “Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace and the ADA.” Accessed June 15, 2019.

Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation. “What is Psychiatric Disability and Mental Illness?” Accessed June 15, 2019.

Disability Benefits Center. “What Mental Disorders Qualify for Social Security Disability?” Accessed June 15, 2019.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Depresion, PTSD, and Other Mental Health[…]e: Your Legal Rights.” Accessed June 15, 2019.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommo[…]th Disabilities Act.” October 17, 2002. Accessed June 15, 2019.

Social Security Administration. “Disability Evaluation Under Social Security.” Accessed July 1, 219.

Social Security Administration. “Disability Determination Process.” Accessed July 1, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.